Last year Richard Davenport-Hines did something I had confidently thought impossible, finding something new to say about the sinking of the Titanic. (He concentrated, to brilliant effect, on the lives of the passengers.)
Now he sets himself an equally big challenge with the Profumo Affair. This may have been the biggest British political scandal of the 20th Century, but every tiny bone of it seems to have been sucked dry in the 50 years that have followed.
In 1962, the Sunday Pictorial offered female readers this advice on how to deal with amorous men: "If at the end of a date your escort insists on a long session of kissing, engage his aid in the preparation of a little snack."
Against this primly drab backdrop Jack Profumo and Valerie Hobson cut an unusually glamorous couple. He was secretary of state for war in Harold Macmillan's Conservative government, the possessor of a large fortune as well as a bizarre title – Baron of the Kingdom of Sardinia – which he wisely thought might hinder his political career. She was a film star from the classic Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets.
But you didn't have to look too closely to see that all was not what it seemed. Far from being satisfied with a little snack, Profumo was addicted to what Davenport-Hines memorably calls "the amatory dusk of brief affairs".
Hobson once wrote him an exasperated letter complaining about his flirtatiousness, and also about the tailoring of his trousers: "Surely there must be some way of concealing your penis?"
In July 1961, Profumo was a guest of Lord Astor's at his country house, Cliveden in Buckinghamshire. Also there was 19-year-old Christine Keeler, staying with "society osteopath" Stephen Ward, who had a grace-and-favour cottage on the estate.
Subsequently, Keeler was described as a prostitute – in fact, there's no evidence she was, although even her stoutest defenders would have to admit that she got about a bit.
A month later, Keeler cooked Profumo some sausages at his London house and then they had sex in front of the television.
Rumours of their fling – it was never an affair – became public after Keeler's former boyfriend made a (very ham-fisted) attempt to shoot her.
At this point Fleet Street steamed in, emitting vast clouds of humbug. Keeler was reported – falsely – also to be sleeping with a Soviet naval attaché, Yevgeny Ivanov. This posed grave implications for national security, or so it was claimed – the implication being that Profumo might have blurted post-coital nuclear secrets that could have then been passed on to Ivanov.
But beneath the simulated shrieks of outrage lay more sinister rumblings. Cecil King, chairman of Mirror Newspapers, saw the scandal as a heaven-sent opportunity to deal the Conservative Party a possibly fatal blow, while Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Daily Express, gleefully used it to prosecute his long-running feud against the Astor family.
Ward was accused of being a pimp – which he wasn't – and sent for trial at the Old Bailey. Just before the verdict, Ward committed suicide. Deeply shaken by it all, Macmillan resigned in October 1963 and neither the Conservative Party nor the country was ever quite the same again.
Davenport-Hines is an incisive writer with a terrific eye for detail. He's particularly good, too, on his subjects' contradictions – he characterises Macmillan as being "simultaneously a romantic escapist and a sturdy materialist".
However, his determination to root the scandal in context means that the background almost outweighs the foreground – it takes some 250 pages to get to Keeler and Profumo's first meeting. And while there's plenty of colour, there is surprisingly little drama.
What one does get, though, is an intriguing – and appalling – sense of the layers of hypocrisy that the affair was draped in.
As for Profumo, the official version is that he devoted his life to good works in the East End. And so he did – but here again what you see isn't quite the whole story.
At a dinner the queen mother gave for him, the now-elderly Profumo sat next to a 17-year-old Guinness heiress. During the first course, he whispered to her, "Ever been f***** by a 70 year-old? No? You should try it."